When I first came to the United States from Iran in 2007 for a doctorate in computer science and machine learning, I was surprised by how few women attended industry conferences. Those I did meet were usually fellow immigrants.
Diversity and gender equality drive creativity and spur innovation across the globe. It’s why the United Nations has declared Feb.11 the International Day of Women and Girls in Science and why the U.S. House of Representatives just launched the first-ever Women in STEM Caucus. The bipartisan initiative, started by four female congresswomen, now has 13 members from both sides of the aisle. The caucus aims to increase the presence of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM across the country.
In Tehran, where I grew up, it’s considered normal for girls to study computer programming from an early age. That culture has opened the door for new generations of female engineers. In fact, in Iran, nearly 70 percent of university graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are women.
That’s a sharp contrast with the United States, where women are vastly underrepresented in STEM fields. Data by the Council of Graduate Schools found that in 2018 U.S. women earned only about a quarter of PhDs in engineering, math and computer science. This is at a time when the United States is facing a critical shortage of STEM workers; in 2015, 14 states advertised 20 STEM jobs for every unemployed STEM worker, according to New American Economy. That demand is projected to grow over the next decade.
Today, I’m the executive vice president and chief algorithms officer for Overstock.com, a tech-driven online retailer committed to diversity. As an immigrant and a woman, I bring a wealth of experiences that help me see problems differently. Plenty of data shows women bring skill sets, strategic thinking and creativity valued by businesses. Women also take women’s needs to heart when creating products and services for them, whether it’s heart medication, seat belts or air bags designed for our physiques. Simply put, women are an essential part of the talent pool.
American companies should strive for increased diversity and inclusivity throughout their organizations. Teachers need to create inclusive classrooms that value girls’ and women’s opinions. Those of us in the field can create better representation by hiring and championing female colleagues or requesting female-friendly policies inside the companies where we work. Leaders in our communities also need to do more to encourage women, immigrants and minorities to enter STEM fields. I applaud the Congressional Women in STEM Caucus, whose mandate is to improve access to hands-on learning, technical training and real-world application of skills required in these jobs.
But we also need to remember the value of our personal stories in influencing young lives. If young American women and girls, including immigrants and minorities, are going to embrace STEM, they’re going to need more support and role models. As Caucus Co-Chair Rep. Chrissy Houlahan of West Chester, Pa., said, she was one of 10 women in her engineering major and doesn’t think the numbers have changed much in 30 years.
A 2018 study of 6,000 American young women conducted by Microsoft and KRC Research found that girls who know a woman in STEM are more than 70 percent more likely to know how to pursue a STEM career and what types of specific jobs might utilize a STEM skillset.
The study said parents’ encouragement was particularly influential in whether girls cultivated a love for science and technology and stuck with these fields over time. Likewise those of us already working in these industries can also serve as mentors for them, whether it’s volunteering at coding camps or sharing our enthusiasm for AI and robotics over ice cream.
Or we can simply raise our hands high in our communities and say: “This is what a female coder, engineer, biotech founder, mathematician or science professor looks like. You can be one, too.” That’s especially important, because 30 percent of girls and 40 percent of women described a man when asked what a “typical” scientist or engineer looked like.
As a woman in STEM, an Iranian American citizen and an immigrant, I want to encourage new generations to realize their potential. With any luck, I’ll see many more female faces at industry conferences to come.
Dr. Kamelia Aryafar is executive vice president and chief algorithms officer for Overstock.com.